May 19 2016

Cueing the Breath: A Blessing and A Curse

"Just Breathe" by Alicia Chenaux.
One of the quintessential Pilates Principles is Breathing. Seems like an obvious task, but amazingly a significant challenge for many, especially with the amount of focus asked of them in a typical Pilates session.  Joseph Pilates himself explains in Pilates’ Return to Life Through Contrology that to breathe properly we should “SQUEEZE EVERY ATOM OF AIR FROM YOUR LUNGS UNTIL THEY ARE ALMOST AS FREE OF AIR AS IS A VACUUM”. Current science refutes this description, but the point still remains a fact that breathing should be an active versus passive act, particularly in movement. 

I recall, without much fondness, my early days practicing Pilates, and the effort and concentration it took to follow the cues of inhale and exhale as they were timed to every movement we executed. The gasping and hissing around the room was almost deafening. What I remember most clearly was that the pattern of the breath and its intensity seemed unnatural and uncomfortable, and after an hour of this, I found myself leaving with a much more mobile body and a pounding headache. I have since learned both in my personal practice and as a Pilates Teacher that breathing is a very important aspect of movement.

I will be honest that breathing is not the first principle that I teach my clients, partly because of my own personal experience as previously explained. As it turns out, most people that have tried Pilates and quickly ceased their practice have a very similar story to my own. I feel strongly that Pilates is an extremely important movement practice for every body, and so have vowed that I will never let my clients have that same experience on my watch. 

“Pilates Breathing” is described by some as a forceful breath intended to activate the Power House, also known as the deep core muscles. I first introduce the breath with my clients after a good amount of time spent reminding them simply to breathe while they acclimatize their bodies to the complex practice of Pilates. Once they have achieved some familiarity with the exercises, I then start to introduce the breath as a way to pace the movement. Using a long slow exhale throughout the length of the movement in one direction, and an easy normal-sized inhale in the opposite direction. 

If you have read my post from May 2015 entitled Clench it or Move it? How to use your muscles for their intended purpose, you will remember that I am not a fan of bracing or clenching of any muscle for any purpose. I apply this same thought when teaching the intention of the breath for movement. A forceful exhale does indeed activate the Transverse Abdominis, but only to achieve stability of the spine and to protect the organs against the force of that exhale or from the impact of a sneeze or cough. The TrAs are not movers therefore do not need to be forcefully activated through the breath for movement. The alternative and perhaps unintended result is that this exhale triggers a bracing effect of the rectus abdominis and obliques, which again is not useful for movement. How then can the breath be effectively used for movement? So many ways, and here are just a couple of my favorites:

First, breathing can assist a direction of movement as touched on earlier. An inhale can effectively encourage the thoracic spine extension needed for Swan, a more twisty rotation in Saw, or it can simply help find length and reach in the body. An exhale creates the hollowing needed for spinal flexion in a Roll Up, or a strong stabilization of the trunk for Leg Pull Front Support (as an aside, this does activate the TrAs, but these fire subconsciously or involuntarily, they don’t need to be “turned on” to work).

Next, the breath can be used to make an effortful exercise significantly easier by transforming what may seem to the new Pilates practitioner like a single joint exercise into a fully integrated movement. Take Bicep Curl on the Reformer as an example. Without using a breathing cue, the movement feels very much like an arm exercise, and this can be quite effortful especially while holding an active C-Curve. However, using the exhale on the bicep curl allows the Anterior Oblique System (Serratus Anterior, both layers of Obliques, and the Adductors) to assist this movement, resulting in a much more efficient and effortless execution.

Breathing is indeed an important principle of Pilates. Understanding and incorporating an intention for the breath cues that we teach and practice is even more important. The breath plays a very important role in all bodily systems, and to deregulate the breath can be very harmful. The body instinctively knows how to breathe, and sometimes we just have to help it along when our clients’ focus is so intently on the movement that they forget to take a breathe altogether. 

Learn effective cueing strategies and program design for every client in the upcoming BODY HARMONICS® Pilates Mat Work Express™ and Pilates Reformer Intensive Certification Programs.
Already a Certified Pilates Teacher? Ask us about the BODY HARMONICS® Bridge Program for Mat and/or Equipment. Contact us at

Written by Holly Wallis, PMA®-CPT, Director, BODY HARMONICS® Teacher Training Faculty
ReActive Movement, 6200 LaSalle Ave, Oakland, CA 94611

© 2016. All rights reserved.


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  • Brent D. Anderson 258 days ago
    Very well written. I agree 100% with the concept of facilitating spontaneous organization. Keep up the good work.

    • Holly Wallis 246 days ago
      Thank you so much for your comments Brent. This is a contentious subject in the Pilates community as you know, so I appreciate the positive feedback.

  • Alison Collings 338 days ago
    Great article, it's what most new clients report that they are confused by the breathing.
    You can see the difference in the movement quality when the breath is smooth, even & controlled.

  • Sarah 339 days ago
    I absolutely agree as well. I cue breathing but tell my clients particularly the beginners not to get hung up on breath and make sure they just keep breathing. As they progress I tend add breasts into the exercise in a more purposeful way. Great article- thank you!

  • Sheri 342 days ago
    I couldn't agree more, Holly. As one who has had to learn the concept that "less is more" in applying technique to several physical pursuits, I certainly benefit from breathing naturally (though not always the same) in whatever activity I'm working at (and enjoying;).


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